Until airlines tackle the scourge of ‘ghost flights’, Britain will never reach net zero
By John Vidal – John Vidal was the Guardian’s environment editor
Guardian – Opinion
I was once the only passenger on a four-hour “ghost flight” across Europe. I loved it – the exclusivity, the speed, even the meals. But that was 45 years ago, when flying was quite rare and seemed glamorous. The idea that air travel might one day threaten future generations seemed very far-fetched.
But the facts change. Travel is now a global commodity, and aviation is the world’s fastest growing major source of climate breakdown emissions. Flying empty or near-empty planes around just to hold on to landing slots at airports now seems close to “ecocide” – an act of deliberate destruction of the environment. A staggering 15,000 ghost flights flew from UK airports between March 2020 and September 2021.
These flights are a symptom of an unregulated, highly protected industry encouraged to keep growing without responsibility. Before the pandemic, Britain had the third largest aviation sector in the world after the US and China. It has some of the most travelled people in the world, and its emissions from flying are the third highest per capita. The government subsidises the industry with huge tax breaks and handouts. And while the rest of UK industry has helped to reduce emissions by around 42% in the last 30 years, aviation has been allowed to double its own.
In 2019, aviation accounted for 8% of all UK emissions, and it shows no sign of slowing soon. The global industry may be slowly improving its efficiency, by about 2% a year, but passenger growth still surges ahead. Globally, a staggering 38,000 large planes are now expected to be flying regularly within 10 years – and the UK government expects more than 230 million more passengers a year will be using UK airports by 2050.
Never mind that the government’s climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), say that passenger numbers should not grow more than 25% and that there should be no more net airport growth. Heathrow, Gatwick, Leeds-Bradford, Manston, Bristol, Luton and others are now planning to expand, in the teeth of local opposition. We are to be Runway Britain.
But while airlines give the impression of being for everyone, they are largely used by the few. Aside from the air and noise pollution close to airports, which disproportionately affects low-income groups, just1% of people take 20% of all English international flights and 10% take more than half. [15% take about 75% of flights]. There is a limit on how much carbon we can emit without catastrophic climate consequences; the more the aviation industry is allowed to grow, the more all other sectors of the economy will have to cut back.
To its credit, Britain also has a legal duty to cut its emissions to reach net zero by 2050, one of the most ambitious decarbonisation plans in the world. This means a 78% cut on 1990 figures by 2035, and 100% by 2050. The government is relying mostly on techno-fixes and imagines a heat pump for every house, electric cars on every drive, better quality housing, mass tree planting and farming reform – but above all, it expects the market to magically deliver the necessary cuts. It is obviously make-believe, and groups including Friends of the Earth and Client Earth are now taking ministers to court, saying the strategy is too theoretical and is not properly backed up with policies, money or commitment.
Besides, they say, unlike cars or houses, there is no techno-fix for aviation. The industry knows this, and talks up emission-trading, switching to renewable fuels, carbon capture and storage, and even one day building lighter electric or green hydrogen planes. But few of these nascent technologies are likely to be working at any significant scale in the next 20 crucial years, by which time we must have slashed emissions heavily to avoid more catastrophic storms, flooding, droughts and heatwaves. Meanwhile, the public is fobbed off with talk of airlinespaying othersto make extra emissions cuts, and being on the brink of breakthroughs.
The bitter truth is that UK aviation, as it exists today, and tackling the climate crisis are incompatible, something recognised by the CCC. It warns that, left unchecked, the linked aviation, tourism and airport industries will blow UK climate targets away.
We need to reduce emissions from air travel fast – and that can only mean fewer flights. That will require proper interventions, such as a tax on frequent flights, the removal of tax breaks on aviation fuel, and the adoption of the “polluter pays” principle. Any money raised could help provide better public transport, cheaper rail fares and alternatives to flying,
The timing for action is good. Two years of travel restrictions and rising awareness of the climate crisis may have convinced many of us that Zoom is here to stay, Britain is beautiful, trains to France and beyond are good, and the days of shopping trips to New York, weekend skiing in Italy and second holidays in Thailand are over.
It might also have convinced the industry that the best way to start addressing its impact on climate change is by banning all ghost flights.
- John Vidal was the Guardian’s environment editor
Government response to the petition against Ghost Flights
The Government continues to provide alleviation from normal airport slot rules to prevent airlines from operating environmentally damaging ‘ghost’ flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In normal times, slot usage rules are in place to ensure that airport capacity is used effectively, and that competition exists for passengers at our most crowded airports. This supports lower fares, better availability of routes and higher service quality.
Under these rules, airlines that use our most crowded airports (that are slot coordinated under the Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines) must operate at least 80% of slots during the current season, or risk losing their historic rights: the so-called ‘80:20’ rule.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a severe shock for aviation demand which has continued to remain considerably suppressed. The usual competition rules, which were designed for a situation where airports enjoyed high levels of usage, were not appropriate when demand had fallen close to zero. As such, the rules requiring airlines to use slots in order to retain their historic rights were fully suspended for the Summer 2020, Winter 2020/21 and Summer 2021 seasons.
The UK’s exit from the European Union means that it has been able to take a more tailored approach that reflect the UK’s specific circumstances. The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft (ATMUA) Act 2021 provides temporary powers to amend these rules where the evidence supports the need to do so. These powers last until August 2024, covering the Winter 2024/25 season.
As the pandemic has gone on and demand begins to recover, the Government is keen to support recovery. For the current Winter 2021/22 season the Government has used the ATMUA Act 2021 to amend the slot usage retention rules. For Winter 2021/22 this has been reduced from 80% to 50%, and we have also allowed airlines to hand back full series of slots before the start of the season if they are not going to fly them. The provision to allow airlines to hand back full series of slots goes further than the equivalent alleviation in the European Union for Winter 2021/22 which did not include a full series hand back. By encouraging airlines to hand back their slots where there is insufficient demand, this has dramatically reduced the volume of empty or almost empty flights. This has also provided other airlines with the opportunity to make use of these slots, where there is sufficient demand, with new entrants being awarded temporary slots at some of our most congested airports.
Following a review of the latest available data and evidence, the Secretary of State decided that alleviation remains justified for the Summer 2022 season.
A draft Statutory Instrument setting out arrangements for Summer 2022 was published on 24 January 2022. The measures balance supporting recovery, protection for those carriers operating in markets that are severely restricted and reducing environmental impacts. It sets a minimum usage ratio of 70% and strengthens the provisions for justified non-utilisation of slots.
The strengthened justified non-use provision protects carriers and avoids the environmental impact of empty or almost empty flights flying where COVID-19 related restrictions are in place and avoids empty or almost empty flights to destinations that have onerous travel restrictions. This is because carriers can now use justified non-use provision to cover foreseeable restrictions, even where restrictions are in place before the start of the season. The UK also will now allow for early applications for justified non-use such as where long term restrictions are in place.
These slot alleviation measures are only temporary, however as part of the Government’s future aviation policy we are actively looking at reform to the airport slot allocation process. We are developing the case and options for reforms to make the best use of airport capacity and deliver a better outcome for passengers.
The Government recognises that the aviation sector has a critical role to play in delivering the UK’s net zero commitments. In July 2021 we published the Jet Zero Consultation which sets out our vision for the sector to reach net zero by 2050. The consultation closed in September and we continue to carefully consider responses in the development of our final Jet Zero Strategy which we aim to publish later this year.
The Government is already supporting a variety of technology, fuel and market-based measures to address aviation emissions. The Net Zero Strategy published in October 2021 confirmed our commitment to Jet Zero, for the UK to become a world-leader in zero emission flight and to build a world-leading sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry. The Government announced £180 million of additional funding for the development of SAF plants in the UK, further supporting our ambition to see 10% SAF blended into the UK fuel mix by 2030.
Department for Transport
‘GHOST FLIGHTS’ AND THE SPECTRE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
22nd February, 2022
What are ‘ghost flights’? asks the AEF (Aviation Environment Federation)
The danger of ‘ghost flights’ may sound like something from the world of espionage, but the term also applies to the phenomenon of thousands of empty, or near empty, planes crossing our skies. In the aviation decarbonisation debate, it is unsurprising that these spectres of inefficiency have become a flashpoint in the discussion.
Ghost flights arise because of the ‘use it or lose it’ rule that forms part of the system of ‘slot management’. Slots are defined times when an airline can use the runway at a particular airport. So an airline can plan for and advertise a departure at, for example, 8:30 am because it holds that slot. Airlines retain the right to use a slot if they use it on a regular basis. If demand dips, as it did during the financial recession of2007 when ‘ghost flights’ were first exposed in the media, or as it has done as a result of the Covid pandemic, some airlines will choose to operate loss-making low-occupancy flights just to retain their slot rights for future use.
Before the pandemic, airlines were required to use their slots at least 80 % of the time. While this was initially suspended during the pandemic and then increased to 50% for the current winter season, it is now set toreturn to around 70% in the UK as air travel resumes.
At congested airports such as Heathrow, slot rights can be lucrative commodities, particularly at popular times of the day. Airlines are assumed to have‘grandfather’ rights to slots they have used historically.
Slots they no longer need can be leased or sold to other airlines for large sums of money. Air New Zealandsold a single Heathrow slot in 2020 for $27 million, while British Airways’ 2018 financial accounts list the asset value of its landing rights at £693 million.
How much do ghost flights matter?
The effect of ghost flights on the environment is very real. A Boeing 737-800, for example, can emit as much as 18 tonnes of CO2 on a 1,500km flight, and that excludes the additional climate impacts associated with contrail formation and NOx emissions.
In February 2022, Alex Sobel MP asked the Government how many departures from UK airports took off with less than 10% of their seats occupied. The answer was nearly 15,000 since March 2020. There was no breakdown of whether these were short- or long-haul flights. However, even if they were exclusively short-haul, this could equate to 270,000 tonnes of CO2. Based on data from the Lufthansa group, [for one year],Greenpeace estimated that the scale of the problem in Europe could translate to 2.1 million tonnes of CO2, or the equivalent of yearly emissions from 1.4 million average diesel or petrol cars.
This is, of course, a relatively small proportion of the total emissions from aviation in Europe, which came to151.8 million metric tonnes of CO2 in 2019. Nevertheless, the notable contention surrounding ‘ghost flights’ is part of the larger debate about regulation and efficiency within the aviation industry, and the seeming lack of agreement over how complex systems should be reformed to meet net zero in 2050.
IATA, the International Air Transport Association,has arguedthat the perceived problems with the current approach to slot allocation “are disproportionately focused on a small number of super-congested airports, such as London Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol and Hong Kong International” and that the focus should be more in increasing capacity by growing airports than on inefficiencies in how scarce capacity is allocated.
Conversely, low-cost carriers typically say that they don’t operate ghost flights, and when Lufthansa recently complained about being forced to operate ghost flights, Ryanair responded by saying that they should simply sell their spare seats at low fares.
Calls for reform
Since Brexit, the UK is now free to set slot allocation rules that differ from those of the EU. In adraft aviation strategy published in 2018, The UK’s Department for Transport argued that the “current allocation system is not designed to stimulate a competitive market environment and has no means of taking into account broader objectives”. Many acknowledge the need to overhaul – or at least improve – this system, yet meaningful change remains to be seen. DfT’s proposals to date, such as auctioning or renting of slots as an alternative to grandfather rights are expressed primarily with a view to allocating new slot capacity at an expanded Heathrow rather than to reform the existing system.
In the short term, the easiest way to avoid ghost flights would be to continue to apply a lower usage percentage for the slot allocation rule.A ghost flights petition created by Flight Free calling for the percentage to be cut to zero has now gained thousands of signatures.
However, keeping such an arrangement in place longer-term could allow incumbent airlines to keep their slots (and prevent competitors from making use of them) even if they were not really needed. This situation could potentially even strengthen calls for airport expansion as a way of creating new capacity in the system.
At less than 1% of UK aviation emissions, ending ghost flights won’t do much to help the industry decarbonise. That being said, ‘ghost flights’ are such an obvious example of wastage that the need for slot reform can’t be ignored. Solutions aren’t necessarily straightforward but the Government should take this opportunity to act. It is clearly an unsustainable practise resulting from outdated rules that were not designed with the current climate challenge in mind.
The current policy not only encourages inefficiency, but also gives a false impression that existing capacity is being fully utilised. The Government should rule out airport expansion and instead focus on slot reform and other efficiency improvements.
Regulators should also make it easier to monitor progress. This information has been hidden from public view, with airlines avoiding scrutiny by claiming the data is proprietary. No doubt airlines fear reputational damage, especially where they’ve made commitments to net zero, but the public and consumers should be informed. It shouldn’t take a parliamentary question to expose the scale of this wasteful practice.